The Art of the Steal, a documentary which chronicles the controversial move of the Barnes collection from a Pennsylvania suburb to Philadelphia, against the will of the foundation’s founder, has recently received widespread circulation through televised distributor IFC. The film makes so attempt to hide its perspective on the debate, giving the majority of the air time to those opposed to the move and portraying those instrumental in the move either as avaricious ‘fat cats’ or powerful bullying politicians. Although the documentary paints the move as purely motivated by greed, the story is never quite that simple.
The collection, with its Cézannes, Picassos, Mogiglianis and Renoirs, is one of, or perhaps THE, strongest personal collections amassed in the 20th century. It’s history however is one shaped by the peculiarities of it’s founder, the eccentric and opinionated Dr. Albert Barnes. John Anderson’s account of the battle over the Barnes collection, Art Held Hostage, gives a more evenhanded account of vicissitudes of Dr. Barnes’ personality, the management of the collection by his purported mistress Violette de Mazia and the events leading up to the accusations by the new directory of the local community’s racism and ensuing expensive litigation.
So what are the real underlying issues in this debate? The will of the collector. Yes, that is very important and Barnes’s very officious nature did not make it easy for his Foundation to survive with all the limitations he put on it. (One good example was his provision that the Foundation could only invest in government securities, a good financial choice for the 1930’s, but devastating for the endowment with the rampant inflation of the 1970s). But the real question, which drives many of the great power struggles over cultural heritage is whether these priceless objects have an obligation to be seen by as many people as possible. Barnes himself believed adamantly in the power of art to educate and had strong opinions on how it must be shown to the masses. But along with the belief in art’s power, comes the desire to control how it is viewed and who gets access. Placed in the center of Philadelphia, in a new facility equipped to handle crowds and surrounded by other great institutions, the museum undeniably will get more visitors. But does the quantity of visitors accurately affect whether the art is achieving the maximum impact? And what about Lincoln University, a small local college whose waning reputation could have been bolstered by it’s affiliation with such a renowned collection? If those students had been given the opportunity for significant protracted involvement in the collection, could their lost experiences outweigh the limited contact of a million tourists blindly fulfilling a cultural to-do list?
Cities, countries and states have historically sought legitimacy and status through art. Cultural heritage is a powerful political tool and in the age of the tourism fuels a massively lucrative industry. In the past Napoleons and Ciceros took the art forcibly through war, today Annenbergs, Pews and Lenfests take it through legal routes.